Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’ is a triumphant exploration of racial politics

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Remember Donald Glover? You might know him as Troy in “Community,” or as a standup comedian, or most likely as his musical persona Childish Gambino. Finally, he has returned to the spotlight with the FX television show “Atlanta,” — which premiered last Wednesday — his newest brainchild.

This show is Glover’s most recent project — as the creator, writer and star of the show, the investment Glover has made in “Atlanta” is clear. While Glover has always thrown himself into his creative endeavors, this is different: there’s a new depth to this art, a departure from a tacit approach, and a fearlessness to undertake complex issues head-on. His formidable creativity fuels this project, and it comes across in every minute of the premier episodes.

“Atlanta” follows the life of Earnest “Earn” Marks as he navigates his identity in his community. He teams up with his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a burgeoning rapper known as Paper Boi, to finally make some money for themselves. After years without communication, Earn tries setting himself up as Alfred’s manager.

Using his own family for his own monetary gain is a clear element of Earn’s broken family dynamics, but “Atlanta” is meant to rework these stereotypes about a troubled Black community rather than succumb to them. The show’s conjunction of surreal dreaminess with everyday routine creates a distinct aesthetic imprint, helping the series defy an easy categorization. Glover and director Hiro Murai pioneer forward, championing this artistically unique theme so consistently that you’re captivated in their world for 30 minutes at a time, until the episode ends and you have to wait for the next one.

Balance is crucial with such heavy subject matter, and fortunately, “Atlanta” does this well. Every thought, moment and scene in the show is not just for the audience’s edification, but also serves to truly reflect the realities of communities ruled by race and class (that is to say, all of them). Yet while exposing social injustice, “Atlanta” manages to dedicate time to sharp one-liners and appropriate pacing to give the show a more original timeline than just the typical resolve-within-one-or-two-episodes timeline most sitcoms follow. It’s this sophisticated approach that sets “Atlanta” apart from its peers and helps it transcend convention.

The true beauty and novelty of “Atlanta” stems from its authenticity. “Atlanta” is a platform that presents the realities of race and class from the perspective of marginalized groups. Every moment is deliberately inseparable from the racial and hierarchical structures that bind the characters — their motives, hopes, goals and lives are wholly subdued by the systematic suppression of poor people of color. Comedic and vulnerable moments alike are subject to this reality, an insider’s lens through which the audience is better able to empathize and understand such day-to-day, even hour-to-hour challenges faced by communities and people like those in “Atlanta.”

Even something so simple as asking a favor of an old acquaintance, as Earn must do in an effort to get Paper Boi’s single on the radio, is riddled with challenges associated with being poor and Black, themes typically unexposed to audiences. After the acquaintance, a white man named Dave tells a joke that includes the n-word and rejects Earn’s request, forcing Earn to get creative with his connection. Instead, he quickly befriends the station janitor, who lets Earn into the building so he can get the single to a radio producer anyway. This is only a small portion of the first episode, but it already lays out the loopholes that race and class can create.

Even setting aside the clear obstacles in Earn’s path, not to mention the disdain his family and friends seem to have for him, “Atlanta” does an excellent job of making Earn likable. Even from the beginning it’s apparent that Earn is not exactly well-liked and has plenty of issues of his own,  yet he is driven and almost mysteriously charismatic. You really feel for him, and part of that can definitely be attributed to Glover’s charming personality naturally seeping through the character’s seams. And it’s not just Earn that walks the line of likability, either — Alfred and Darius are charismatic in their own right. Again, this has a lot to do with the talent of the actors behind the characters. Keith Stanfield, who plays Darius, has an idiosyncratic deadpan delivery that adds character to every scene he’s in. This perfect convergence between actor, character and behavior adds to the overall creative strengths of the show.

This show is a triumph. It is a mechanism of catharsis to explore questions of race, class, gender, art and expression, among other concepts that will surely be picked up along the way. A clear passion project, “Atlanta” sets forth on a path that is entirely its own, separate from the norm in the best ways.

Contact Paige Petrashko at [email protected].